Editor’s Advice: “Jazz Your Verbs”

Editor’s Advice: “Jazz Your Verbs”

When author Brian Doyle visited the campus of BYU–Idaho last December, he shared stories and a lot of dynamite writing advice. Much of that advice has stayed with me, but with NaNoWriMo 2016 behind us and plenty of editing ahead of us, one piece of Doyle’s advice feels especially applicable: “Jazz your verbs.”

I’ve heard it said that verbs are the lifeblood of good writing. Nothing happens in a story until you include a verb. But if you’re not careful, we sometimes fall into the trap of using the same verbs, or at least the same verb patterns, over and over again, which can suck the vibrance right out of your work. So, as I’ve considered various ways to get out of my verbial comfort zone, I came up with a list of four ways to jazz your verbs as you edit your manuscript.

Avoid Adverbs

Adverbs generally add fluff and attempt to make up for poor word choice. One place we often see adverbs is in speaker tags (the “he said” “she said” phrases after dialogue). Novice writers will often write something like, “‘Stop it!’” he yelled angrily.” Take a look at the adverb “angrily.” Is it really necessary? Nope! The context of the story and the fact that the speaker “yelled” should be enough to clue the reader in.

Here’s another example: “‘I love you,’ she spoke quietly.” Now, “spoke quietly” isn’t as redundant as “yelled angrily,” but we can still do better. What’s a synonym for speaking quietly? Whispering! It’s a more specific verb, so you can use it without an adverb: “‘I love you,’ she whispered.”

Every now and then, a well chosen adverb is important. Example: “She eyed the room fearfully.” The adverb in this sentence adds meaning that otherwise wouldn’t be present. But even in situations like this, it’s worth getting creative and trying to figure out ways to maneuver around using adverbs.

Use Specific Verbs

The more specific you can be with your verbs, the better. For example, the verb “went” can be used in many different situations: “I went to college;” “I went to the store;” “I went to bed.”

“Went” works in all these situations, but it means something slightly different in each case, so wouldn’t it be better to use a verb that fits each situation and adds detail to the sentence? Here are the examples revised: “I attended college;” “I drove to the store;” “I climbed into bed.” It’s a simple switch, but it can help add detail and variation to your storytelling.

Employ Fresh Verbs

This is where your verbs can really get jazzy. As you edit your work, replace boring verbs with exciting ones. Don’t go over the top; you don’t want your verbs stand out for all the wrong reasons and become distracting. Just try to add verbs you don’t use all the time. Brian Doyle’s use of “jazz” is a good example. You wouldn’t normally think to say “jazz your verbs,” but it totally works and is catchier than “make your verbs better” or “improve your verbs.” So get creative, grab a thesaurus if you need to, and come up with some new and interesting verbs.

Ditch Passive Voice

According to the Purdue OWL, a sentence written in passive voice is a sentence where the subject is acted upon. These sentences tend to be wordier than sentences written in active voice, which is when the subject more directly performs the action. You can detect passive voice by looking for “be” verbs, such as was, is, am, are, be, were, etc. These don’t always indicate passive voice, but when you see them next to other verbs, that’s when you want to avoid them. Here are some examples:

Passive: The ball was caught by the dog.

Active: The dog caught the ball.

Passive: The best apple pie is made by my mom.

Active: My mom makes the best apple pie.

Exceptions to the Rules

If you follow these tips, your verbs will dance off the page; however, there are exceptions to these rules. Adverbs are an important part of language, and they exist for a reason. Sometimes passive voice is the right choice. The point isn’t to avoid these things like the plague; rather, it’s to understand the rules and only use adverbs and passive voice when necessary. They are like salt and pepper. A pinch sprinkled here and there can be wonderful, but if you use them too much, they can spoil your food.


What’s one of your editing tips?

3 thoughts on “Editor’s Advice: “Jazz Your Verbs”

  1. Excellent advice Brian. I try to keep these rules in mind whenever I write. Just today I wrote in my blog post about “dieseling buses” and “sizzling electric wires.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *